Thursday, March 17, 2011

Driving in Spain

Now in Great Britain they have a clever strategy to keep foreigners off their roads. First, they put all the important automotive controls on the wrong side of the car, so you have to sit on the right side of the vehicle. Then they tell you that you have to drive on the left side of the road. They then point you to a nice “M” series motorway, with three nice wide lanes like our freeways only with no real speed limit, so you start feeling pretty confident – “this is not so difficult”. Then you take an exit onto the “real” british roads; their two lane “A” series are the width of our residential streets, and their country roads are only one lane wide with two way traffic. Now this wouldn't be so bad if you could take your time, but you just get comfortable keeping the car from bouncing off the curbs on either side when suddenly there's a big Jag sedan or a Range Rover on you tail going twice your speed, wondering why you can't maintain 100 kph when you have at least a foot between the 500 year old stone wall on one side and the a few inches more on the other side before that 6 foot thorn hedge starts taking the paint of the rental car.

Now I managed pretty well in England, especially considering it was before I had my cataract surgery and couldn't see all that well, so I didn't hesitate to rent a car and drive in Spain.

First, they drive on the right side of the road and their cars are set up correctly so you sit on the left to drive. The roads are very good, nice and wide and well marked. Signage is in Spanish, but easy to understand, so it is quite easy to find your way around.

My first outing was a very pleasant drive along the Mediterranean coast from El Campello to Valencia along the coastal road, N332. This was a road designed for driving, as it wound around the coast and up and down the local mountains and hills. We made this trip on a Sunday, so there was a lot of traffic, with large groups of bicyclists in full bright multi-colour riding gear, providing moving slalom pylons, many motorcyclists out on everything from Vespas, to Sport bike riders in racing leathers blitzing the corners and high speed, and some very interesting sports cars of every vintage. I would have loved to have done this road on the GPZ 550.

Our second trip was a four hour drive to visit Grenada. This trip was mostly on larger four lane divided highways. These highways are very similar to our major highways, with speeds posted at 100 – 110. The roads are well maintained and well serviced. There are lots of service centres with gas stations and convenient rest areas (no toilets however). The exits are well marked and plenty of warnings are given for them. It was a challenge to figure out some of the regular signs however. There was one sign with two motorcycles with their back wheels in the air following a car. It could have meant “No Stunt Riding”, but as I tried to convince the little Fiat Panda to get up the mountain, I realized it meant that those Blitzing sport bikes had better be aware of overtaking underpowered fiats going very slow up the hills.

The drivers that we shared the roads with were all very courteous. I only heard a horn blow once while in a traffic jam in Valencia, and normally they are patient to pass, and generally calm. There were a lot of large trucks on the highways to Grenada, and they generally stick to the right hand lane, allowing other traffic to pass easily. When they do pass other vehicles, they do it quickly and pull in immediately. Although I saw no signs about lane use, most drivers remain in the right lane unless actually passing, and when they pass they immediately switch back to the right lane. Never once did I find the little old lady with the purple hair in the 1978 Cadillac blissfully cruising at 80 in the left lane.

There did seem to be a distinct class system on the highways. There were loads of trucks, who obviously knew their place was in the right lane. There were the “Ordinary” folk who drove Fiats, Volkswagens, Renaults, or Citroens, who stayed in their right lanes most of the time, but were welcome to switch over occasionally to pass slower drivers. Then there were the large Mercedes, BMW's  and Audis. There seemed to be a different rule for them. They were polite, but it was obvious that they felt that the left lanes were built for big fast German sedans with only one person (What fuel crisis?). Most of these cars cruised the left lane at least 20 – 30 kph faster than everyone else. I never saw one pulled over for speeding, and the speed limit was recently lowered from 120 to 110. When you pulled out to pass you had to watch out, because they were travelling so much faster that without warning you would see a big sedan filling the mirrors feet from your rear bumper. What surprised me was the politeness of everyone. Even these big faster sedans didn't glare at you as they roared by like so ofter happens in North America when you inadvertently get in a faster vehicle's way. These cars just waited for you to pull over and then accelerated rapidly by without a second look – they knew there were folk who couldn't afford cars that could maintain decent speeds but they just accepted them and moved on.

All in all, driving the highways and byways of Spain was a very pleasant experience. The cities are another story, but anyone coming to Spain, I would not hesitate to suggest you rent a car to get around.  . . . . BUT as I said before – The trains are an awfully civilized way to travel.    

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